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San Joaquin Valley College Blog

Childhood dream becomes reality at Fresno’s Aviation campus

October 21, 2013
Michael and wife, Autumn.

Michael McGee and his family were in a tough place. A carpenter and firefighter for most of his adult life, Mike had been out of work for much of the last two years. He knew he had to do something to keep his Mariposa life going with wife, Autumn and teenage daughters Bonnie and Rianna. He realized that meant doing what no one wants to do. Michael and his family applied for the state’s Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

But, Michael is a practical man.

“I’ve been paying into the whole welfare thing for 20-years,” he says. “Now it’s paying off for me.”

Regardless, food stamps and temporary financial assistance were not going to solve their problems. During the application process their case processor asked Michael about the possibility of him going back to school through their Cal-Works program.

Michael had not been in a classroom for twenty years and had no idea for a new career direction. At forty years old with no college degree, he had no ideas.

His case processer said, “I’d think of what I wanted to do when I was 10-years old and do that.” Pop. Whiz. Bang. The stars started to line up.

Michael and Autumn looked at each other. Helicopters.

“You’ve been taking them apart (models) and putting them back together for years,” said Autumn. “Why don’t you build a real one?”

They went home, hit the internet and found just what they needed at SJVC’s Aviation campus. Within four days of seeing the campus online, Michael was enrolled. The ten-year old was in charge – and he turned out to be a smart and intuitive little guy.

Michael hit it hard. He leaves the house at 4:45 AM each morning to make the 2-hour commute, and gets back around 5:30 each night. That’s a daily 4 hour round-trip and 790 miles a week.

“It’s just a routine,” says Michael. “And a small price for such a big payout.”

He and Autumn are grateful for the Welfare-to-Work program that provides grants for education, tools, uniforms and gas.

Michael wasn’t sure what to expect in class but he was reassured by the environment he found.

“It’s as strict and real as it needs to be, but it’s also a very relaxed atmosphere,” he says. “You’re allowed to laugh, which is very conducive to learning. We’re a bunch of mechanics, so nobody pulls any punches, either.”

Michael is a natural at all things airborne. His grandfather worked for NASA, so maybe he has the bloodline advantage. However, Michael didn’t just do well in class – he began to thrive. Not only were his grades rolling in As, he became heavily involved in Student Council and is a natural mentor to fellow students.

“I’m one of the people who decides how to benefit the student body,” Michael says about his Student Council work, noting it will also look good on his resume. And, helping others “is helping me too, to better understand something.”

“Michael is well liked and is a natural leader,” offers Don Dutra, AMT Powerplant instructor. “He helped other students with labs and organized study sessions with students to improve grades on exams and lab work. He also has perfect attendance.”

Michael feels very good about what he is learning in his Aviation Maintenance Technology program.

“The fact that I am going to be allowed to work on anything that flies – all over the world…that’s a pretty big deal,” he says.

Michael and his family have made some huge sacrifices for him to go back to school. But, they all realize it has to be now.

“It would not have been possible to pay for life and school at the same time,” says Michael. “Plus, I don’t want to be collecting cans when I’m 60.” Not much danger of that.

Michael holds a bright vision of his future. “As far as I can tell, we’re never going to stop flying,” he says. “And, I want to do something that’s going to be around at least as long as I am.”

A little farther out, Michael has an even bigger plan.

“I don’t even want anyone else to work on my car,” he laughs; “so part of the reward of all this is to work on my own plane one day.”

Up, up and away.


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